Emission Mitigation Failure: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

However unlikely success might be, we can't afford to abandon efforts to cut emissions - we just don't have any better option

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere
are saying the same thing: it's over. The years in which more than 2C
of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the
opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories
we'll be lucky to get away with 4C. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas
pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way.
If we can.

This, at any rate, was the repeated whisper at the climate change
conference in Copenhagen last week. It's more or less what Bob Watson,
the environment department's chief scientific adviser, has been telling
the British government. It is the obvious if unspoken conclusion of
scores of scientific papers. Recent work by scientists at the Tyndall
Centre for Climate Change Research, for instance, suggests that even
global cuts of 3% a year, starting in 2020, could leave us with 4C of
warming by the end of the century. At the moment, emissions are heading
in the opposite direction at roughly the same rate. If this continues,
what does it mean? Six? Eight? Ten degrees? Who knows?

Faced with
such figures, I can't blame anyone for throwing up their hands. But
before you succumb to this fatalism, let me talk you through the

Yes, it is true that mitigation has so far failed.
Sabotaged by Clinton, abandoned by Bush, attended halfheartedly by the
other rich nations, the global climate talks have so far been a total
failure. The targets they have set bear no relation to the science and
are negated anyway by loopholes and false accounting. Nations like the
UK, which is meeting its obligations under the Kyoto protocol, have
succeeded only by outsourcing their pollution to other countries. And
nations like Canada, which is flouting its obligations, face no
meaningful sanctions.

Lord Stern made it too easy: he appears
to have underestimated the costs of mitigation. As the professor of
energy policy Dieter Helm has shown, Stern's assumption that our
consumption can continue to grow while our emissions fall is
implausible. To have any hope of making substantial cuts we have both
to reduce our consumption and transfer resources to countries like
China to pay for the switch to low carbon technologies. As Helm notes,
"there is not much in the study of human nature - and indeed human
biology - to give support to the optimist".

But we cannot abandon
mitigation unless we have a better option. We don't. If you think our
attempts to prevent emissions are futile, take a look at our efforts to

Where Stern appears to be correct is in proposing that
the costs of stopping climate breakdown, great as they would be, are
far lower than the costs of living with it. Germany is spending EUR600m
just on a new sea wall for Hamburg - and this money was committed
before the news came through that sea-level rises this century could be
two or three times as great as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change has predicted. The Netherlands will spend EUR2.2bn on dykes
between now and 2015; again they are likely to be inadequate. The UN
suggests that rich countries should be transferring $50 to $75bn a year
to poor ones now to help them cope with climate change, with a massive
increase later on. But nothing like this is happening.

Guardian investigation reveals that the rich nations have promised
$18bn to help the poor nations adapt to climate change over the last
seven years, but they have disbursed only 5% of that money. Much of it
has been transferred from foreign aid budgets anyway: a net gain for
the poor of nothing. Oxfam has made a compelling case for how
adaptation should be funded: nations should pay according to the amount
of carbon they produce per capita, coupled with their position on the
human development index. On this basis, the US should supply more than
40% of the money and the European Union over 30%, with Japan, Canada,
Australia and Korea making up the balance. But what are the chances of
getting them to cough up?

There's a limit to what this money
could buy anyway. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says
that "global mean temperature changes greater than 4C above 1990-2000
levels" would "exceed ... the adaptive capacity of many systems". At
this point there's nothing you can do, for instance, to prevent the
loss of ecosystems, the melting of glaciers and the disintegration of
major ice sheets. Elsewhere it spells out the consequences more
starkly: global food production, it says, is "very likely to decrease
above about 3C". Buy your way out of that.

And it doesn't stop
there. The IPCC also finds that, above 3C of warming, the world's
vegetation will become "a net source of carbon". This is just one of
the climate feedbacks triggered by a high level of warming. Four
degrees might take us inexorably to 5C or 6C: the end - for humans - of
just about everything.

Until recently, scientists spoke of
carbon concentrations - and temperatures - peaking and then falling
back. But a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences shows that "climate change ... is largely irreversible for
1,000 years after emissions stop". Even if we were to cut carbon emissions
to zero today, by the year 3000 our contribution to atmospheric
concentrations would decline by just 40%. High temperatures would
remain more or less constant until then. If we produce it, we're stuck
with it.

In the rich nations we will muddle through, for a few
generations, and spend nearly everything we have on coping. But where
the money is needed most there will be nothing. The ecological debt the
rich world owes to the poor will never be discharged, just as it has
never accepted that it should offer reparations for the slave trade and
for the pillage of gold, silver, rubber, sugar and all the other
commodities taken without due payment from its colonies. Finding the
political will for crash cuts in carbon production is improbable. But
finding the political will - when the disasters have already begun - to
spend adaptation money on poor nations rather than on ourselves will be

The world won't adapt and can't adapt: the only
adaptive response to a global shortage of food is starvation. Of the
two strategies it is mitigation, not adaptation, which turns out to be
the most feasible option, even if this stretches the concept of
feasibility to the limits. As Dieter Helm points out, the action
required today is unlikely but "not impossible. It is a matter
ultimately of human wellbeing and ethics".

Yes, it might
already be too late - even if we reduced emissions to zero tomorrow -
to prevent more than 2C of warming; but we cannot behave as if it is,
for in doing so we make the prediction come true. Tough as this fight
may be, improbable as success might seem, we cannot afford to

© 2023 George Monbiot